Unesco Rice Terrace Trekking in the Luzon Province – Part 2

“Stop worrying about the potholes in the road and celebrate the journey.” – Fitzhugh Mullan

The marvels of the Luzon mountains goes beyond the rice terraces and extends to the farming of the mountain villagers. Aptly described by my guide, the villagers are each Spiderman as they tend to their crops grown on their mountainside farms, called “umas”. My awe of their dexterity has nothing to do with my fear of heights but more that I can’t fathom how one plants, cultivates and reaps crops on a straight incline without grappling hooks and full climbing gear. If I had stumbled while trekking I would have rolled down the mountainside with such momentum that I would not have only killed myself but taken out their crops as well. Jess Tony, my guide, pointed out a variety of vegetables; sweet potatoes, corn, beans, lettuce and other greens, as well as banana trees, which had been affected by the recent typhoon.

At one point while walking on the path we heard rustling and lo and behold it was a woman farming her land. I couldn’t see her until we had passed and then could look with a more horizontal viewpoint rather than trying to located her as I stared down the mountain into her crops. He showed me a sign, made with tied grass to warn people who pass by. It basically says that if you want food you need to ask permission and if you take without asking bad things will happen to you. No need for me to worry, the incline alone was a big enough deterrent. We made our way through windy hills while I admired the scenery trekking through 20 kilometres of mountains and past admirable rice terraces.

Pula consisted of so few homes that I didn’t even bother to count. I wasn’t even sure what to make of it. The houses weren’t homes I had seen before and there seemed to be no one in the first part of the hamlet (I checked the definition, seems appropriate) except for some kids running around demanding the candy that the mountain guides bring on their visits. The school was evidently somewhere nearby and the kids were cute but wow was it visible who did and did not attend school, who could afford the books and supplies and whose family could afford the child’s time away for the home/farm. 

Jess Tony said the biggest difference to him were the children’s manners, for me it was the clothing and cleanliness or lack there of. There was one boy, second from the right who was almost feral in nature. The children begged for candy and took a photo with me and then we were off to the other end of the hamlet, a three-minute walk, and came to the group of young and expectant mothers.

As was customary Jess Tony would bring out his bag of betel nut and share it with the women. Sometimes he even gave a portion of his stash to the mountain villagers we met along the way, a kind of mountain tax for crossing their lands. Betel nut, also called the Areca nut, is chewed by many Asian people and I’ve read that it “causes a mild hot sensation in the body and slightly heightened alertness, although the effects vary from person to person.” Many also mix in wet tobacco leaves so it also makes it highly addictive. Like going to buy a packet of cigarettes it is purchased in baggies and included are fresh betel tree leaves, wet tobacco, the betel nuts themselves and then a small baggie of white powder which I have been told differs from region to region. In Luzon it was made of limestone, in the province of Sagada it was made from seashells.

A few seeds from the betel nut are taken and are wrapped by the tobacco, which is then wrapped by the betel leaf and the entire thing is then chewed. The pinky finger is dipped into the white powder and then dabbed a few times into the mouth to help reduce the bitterness of the betel nut. Now, I understand it’s their culture but it is also highly repulsive. It makes the mouth and teeth bright orange and like chewing tobacco you are required to spit a chunky orange concoction that is projectiled everywhere, often landing nearby. It has become such a problem that “no spitting” signs are now posted on walls in buildings and on the street and Banaue has placed spitting pails around the town. Many also now carry plastic bottles around with them to spit into. Yeah, it’s disgusting and I watched out wherever I walked to avoid stepping it people’s castoff. Ugh. Here’s a photo of my guide’s mouth, lol. 

The hamlets in the mountain were the only place I saw women chewing betel nut and we said hello to this small group of women and continued on our way.

The rest of the trek was hard for me. I’m scared of heights and we were literally walking among the rice terraces. The edge of each terrace is a stonewall about 1’ thick and the fall to the next terrace is about 12’ which isn’t that far but I knew I’d break a leg. That prompted me to ask my lone 23-year old novice guide what he would do if I did break my leg. He said they’d get a mountain doctor and massage it, I told him that wouldn’t cut it and tried to put the thought out of my head. On the other side of the wall were the swampy rice terraces. I had already stepped in a paddy and soaked one running shoe, now a sloppy, squishy, muddy mess and now I was scared of either side of the stonewall. I asked my guide again and again if this was the normal pathway for all trekkers and he assured me so, however, at one point I think he led me through his own shortcut instead of taking the bridge. Problem was that it was no shortcut as he navigated me through rice terraces and climbed up the mountain using the thousand year old terrace steps – stones jutting out from the walls. What a grueling trek! (My guide’s out of focus photo of me climbing the terrace wall). 

And of course I then stepped my left foot into the paddy pulling it out as fast as I stepped in and was up to my calf in mud, not even recognizing my shoe. At least both feet matched the other. I was about to yell out some expletive words at my guide when he lost his footing and went down face first losing his walking stick to the terrace below. Ouch, it looked like it really hurt. By the way, you really need your walking stick, do not even think of turning it down as I almost did. He got back up and pointed out the unstable rock to me. A minute later we passed an old woman tending to her crops. She spoke to him as we passed and like many of his other encounters I thought this one to be friendly, however, after passing he told me she had asked him if he had put the rock back in its place. He was pretty sure that we had both fallen because of her protection of her property. While perhaps he fell because of her unstable rock mine was more because of my fear/loss of balance combination. I couldn’t wait for the rice terraces part to be over and I have to admit that on one very precarious wall that a small boy ended up in the paddy because in passing I certainly was not going to the edge where I’d fall. These kids ran on these things, walked a long way to school on the narrow cobblestones so he let me have my way but he went paddy side. My bad. We passed another small hamlet on the way into Cambulo and at that point my patience was gone so when we passed some children who called me “negro” and I almost chucked them off the mountain; reminding myself that they call all white people “Americanos” and blacks, “negroes”, learned from their parents post war stories and from television. Serenity now.

Our last interaction with the farmers was with an elderly woman working her rice paddy. I wasn’t supposed to look at her but she fascinated me. She was completely hunched over and must have been in her late 90s (JT tells me the eldest woman on record was 130 – not so sure). She had cataracts and one tooth and came over to talk to JT and get some betel nut. I really wanted to take a photo of her feet because on her right foot EVERY toe was bent at a 90 degree angle. For example, take a look at your right big toe and imagine it at a 90 degree angle to the left at the big joint. And every toe following it. I was flabbergasted and tried not to stare wanting so bad to take a photo. The feet are like that of many farmers who work in the rice paddies because after they plant the seeds they push them down into the ground with one of their feet – kind of like us being right handed or left handed. 

When she went back to the paddy I asked JT to request her permission to take a photo of her in the paddy and was permitted to do so, however, she wouldn’t look at the camera. Again, many elderly believe you take a piece of their soul if they look at the camera. Maybe that’s the problem with our generation, or the one behind us. Too many photos? Is Facebook sucking out our souls?

Finally we entered into Cambulo where we would stay the night. We were entering into mountain “civilization”, a village of approximately 500 people and the Cambulo Guesthouse run by Rosemarie, a fantastic young woman of 34 who went to university and who’s English was very good. The fact that she was still single had me wondering other things but I let that go. Maybe she was just like many women I know in Canada, working for herself and still hasn’t found the right man but I’m not sure.

Next up..town observations, my evening with some village children and the end of the trek.

P.S. I’m behind in my posts, trying hard to catch up as…I’m home on MONDAY!!!!! Can’t wait.

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